Extreme political makeover

John Kerry has the potential to be a far greater leader than Bill Clinton.

Published July 1, 2004 9:40PM (EDT)

Among the headline-grabbing disclosures from the Clinton Rock and Roll Revival World Tour -- ranging from the former president's once dreaming of being a doorman at the Plaza Hotel to his being on the South Beach diet -- was a little-noticed morsel in the Boston Globe noting that Clinton has advised John Kerry to "campaign as though Iraq was stable, the economy was going great guns, and bin Laden was dead ... concentrating on selling himself."

Thanks, Bill, but maybe you should concentrate on selling your books. That's got to be the worst advice given a presidential candidate since someone told Mike Dukakis to put on a helmet and hop in that tank.

Of course, Clinton is just offering Kerry what has always worked for him: It's all about me, stupid!

And if you're Clinton -- and it's 1992 -- maybe that works. But Kerry's not Clinton (which is not to say that's a bad thing) and 2004 bears no resemblance to 1992. Trying to get Kerry to be more like Clinton is like trying to get Ian McKellen to be more like The Rock -- it just ain't in the genes.

The problem with Clintonism as a political strategy is that its namesake's political gifts are not transferable -- so Clintonism shrivels like a pricked balloon without the outsized persona of the Man From Hope.

"How many Democrats," a Kerry staffer worried, "are going to look at Bill during the convention and think: He's still the best candidate we have."

But while Clinton was, is, and will always be a better candidate than Kerry, Kerry has the potential to be a better president than Clinton -- and a far greater leader.

The Roaring '90s were the perfect era for a virtuoso politician like Clinton. The post-9/11 age calls for a candidate who can turn the focus onto the people he wants to lead -- on their struggles and their dreams and their desire for unity and a better life for their children.

That means a candidate like John Kerry, who this week told those gathered at a Rainbow/PUSH Coalition conference, "The stories of your lives have become the work of my life. I am running for president to be part of making your dreams real again. To fight with you in your struggles." As I was pondering the divergent appeals of Clinton and Kerry over dinner with a friend, he told me the story of trying to sell his house -- a small but comfortable home in Santa Barbara with an absolutely breathtaking view. He first tried to sell it with a flyer featuring a photo of the house, but didn't get a single offer. He then swapped the photo of the house for one showing the spectacular view from the porch. The house sold -- for well over the asking price -- within a few days.

The point being: You gotta play to your strengths.

John Kerry's house is fine. It's a good house, a house with a tremendous foundation. But it's the view -- his transformational vision for America -- that will sell him to the country.

Clinton was all about sparkling fixtures and interesting decorating flourishes -- remodeling the Democratic Party with triangulation and realpolitik touches. During his presidency, the pragmatic argument had it that, with the country split, there was no appetite for grand visions, just for legislative knick-knacks and policy odds and ends. The cold war had ended, and we could afford to tinker.

But that was then. What the times call for now, and what Kerry must do, is give the Democratic Party -- and American politics in general -- an extreme political makeover.

The good news for Kerry is that since Sept. 11 the country is in a much more sober mood -- looking for a responsible leader who will remind us that we are all in the same boat together. Hope, community, inspiration and real national security -- as opposed to Bush's perpetual anxiety, fear, pessimism and division -- are the features America's voters are in the market for.

In making the media rounds, Clinton seemed to suggest that laying low is a good strategy for Kerry, whom he praised for showing "a certain reticence given the seriousness of the problems in the world today."

But Leader of the Free World is not exactly a stealth position. When you think of the qualities that make for a great president does reticence make your top 100? Your top 1,000? Nor will reticence close the absurd gap in the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll that has 51 percent of Americans saying that they trust Bush as their commander in chief, compared to 43 percent that say they trust Kerry for the job.

Advising Kerry to focus on upping his curb appeal is badly missing the point, which is that the Democratic Party actually has a candidate with the biography, the intellect, the heart, the chutzpah, and the courage to offer voters a stirring view of where we should be headed as a country.

If he does, I predict he'll be in escrow on the White House by Election Day.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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John F. Kerry